A Mayor's Ugly Past

Mayor Charlie Robertson of York, Pa., should have been a shoo-in this fall for a third term. For the past decade, York has cheerfully prospered under his leadership, and the town of rolling green hills and integrated neighborhoods is still undergoing a $100 million building boom. But York hasn't always been so placid, and nobody knows that better than Robertson. Last week, just as the mayor was celebrating a tight Democratic primary victory, police put him in handcuffs. Prosecutors charged Robertson, a town cop in 1969, with murder for allegedly supplying white gang members with bullets, urging one to "kill as many n----rs as you can," and fomenting a race riot. "It sickens me to my stomach," Robertson said of the charges in an interview with NEWSWEEK. Sitting in his oak-paneled office, with the Ten Commandments and a picture of his adopted Cambodian son hanging behind him, the bachelor mayor insisted: "I'm not going to resign; I am innocent."

The known facts of the case are these: For a week in July 1969, bullets rained and entire city blocks burned, sparked by the shooting of a black resident. Lillie Belle Allen, a preacher's daughter, rode with her parents and sister through the turf of the Newberry Street Boys, a white gang. "It's n----rs, and they have guns," a kid yelled, according to grand-jury testimony. Rifle-toting teens charged the Cadillac, causing Allen's sister to swerve and stall the car on railroad tracks. Allen got out. "Don't shoot!" she screamed. Someone yelled, "She has a gun," and a hail of gunfire ripped open Allen's chest. Officer Charlie Robertson was the first policeman on the scene.

The murder remained a mystery until the riot's 30th anniversary, when the media began sifting old cases. Soon, investigators were talking to aging suspects, one of whom committed suicide and left a confession (over the years, four Newberry Street Boys have shot themselves to death). A grand jury was convened last June; seven white men have been arraigned. Prosecutors charged Robertson with murder even though he's not accused of being a triggerman; the statute of limitations had run out on all other charges.

Testimony against the mayor paints a picture of a stereotypical '60s racist. He told NEWSWEEK he is "ashamed" that he shouted "white power" at a gang meeting the night before Allen's murder. But he denies that he distributed bullets to the gang and told them, "If I weren't a cop I would be leading commando raids against n----rs in the black neighborhoods." The case, Robertson says, is political, motivated by a Republican district attorney's office and the Republican-owned York Daily Record/Dispatch. In court, the mayor will claim he is a victim of mistaken identity. For her part, Gladys Oden believes she is closer to finding out who killed her sister. After all these years, she said, "we thought there wasn't any hope."